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In Focus


World heritage tampered at will 

The Galle Fort (inset) Letter addressed
to Chairman, Galle Fort Foundation

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

In the wake of a reactive monitoring mission by UNESCO recommending immediate mitigation measures and the subsequent removal of the Galle Cricket Stadium and the rejection of the current harbour proposal in order to preserve the universally valued Galle Fort World Heritage Site comes the charge that more and more residential premises forming part of the heritage site are being converted into commercial business premises diluting its antiquity value.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee expressed serious concerns over the development of the Galle Cricket Stadium and the proposed Galle Port Expansion Project, and both projects were perceived as potential threats to the site when the World Heritage Committee held its 32nd session in Quebec City, Canada, in July 2008 following which strong recommendations were made for  “the removal of the intrusive and illegal construction within the Cricket Stadium, to consider the abandoning or down scaling of the current port development project to an acceptable size, considering the outstanding universal value of the property.”

It is in this backdrop that lawyer and President, Galle Fort World Heritage Protection Society, P. Thiranagama has written a protest letter to the Galle Heritage Foundation with copies to the Minister of Cultural Affairs, Commissioner of Archeology, the Government Agent, Galle, and other authorities urging immediate action.

Commercialised business premises

In that Thiranagama states that after the assumption of office by a new chairman, more and more residential premises have been converted into commercialised business premises causing deep concern to the residential population.

“You will observe that more than 90% of the sale of residential premises to foreigners have resulted in those buildings being converted into hotels, restaurants, motels, lodges or into shops selling antiques, gems and jewellery, shoes and others,” he notes.

He further warns that The Netherlands’ aid to protect the Dutch fortifications and architecture would also cease if the present trend continues.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, the activist lawyer bemoaned the fact that the glorious architecture of the past was being swiftly modified destroying the heritage value of the site. “The authorities are blind to the alterations taking place. Architectural and archaeological values are being overlooked as more and more residents prefer to either sell their properties, largely to foreigners or to convert the buildings into business premises in violation of heritage guidelines,” he noted.

The practice of selling heritage property commenced post tsunami and the Urban Development Authority (UDA) guidelines are no longer being followed.

The reactive mission last year focused on the general state of conservation of the Old Town and its fortifications and identified random, unregulated destruction of historic properties, addition of second and even third floors in a setting where 70% of the buildings are and should remain single-storied.

Strongest protest

On September 24 last year, President, ICOMOS, Architect/Archaeologist, Prashantha B. Mandawala lodged his strongest protest against the construction work of the Galle International Cricket Stadium to Director, World Heritage Centre, Fransesco Bandarin about the violation of regulations and agreements thereby putting the site in danger.

Mandawala noted: “The present construction at the site has violated all these agreements putting the site in great danger of being delisted. I would like to add that the Galle Fort became world famous not because the fort is shown on television during cricket matches but due to its status as a World Heritage Site amongst 644 cultural properties in the world. There are only about 20 countries playing cricket while 138 countries are signatories to the World Heritage Convention.”

While that may be the thinking behind the World Heritage Centre, an arm of UNESCO dedicated to preserving heritage the world over, it seems that the Sri Lankan authorities have bungled yet again causing serious concerns that may lead to the possible delisting of the Dutch built Galle Fort as a World Heritage Site due to non-compliance with state obligations.

The old town of Galle and its fortifications were declared part of the World Heritage Sites in 1988 under Article 1 of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage adopted in 1972.

Cultural heritage

Accordingly, monuments, groups of buildings and related sites are considered “cultural heritage” due to their outstanding universal value. The Galle Fort site includes monuments, groups of buildings and the site itself.

The exact site is described by Prof. Ashley de Vos in his concept proposal for the Rehabilitation Of The Tsunami Devastated City Of Galle Through Human Resource Development as; “Galle Fort is located in southern Sri Lanka, 120 km. from Colombo. It is a unique monument and remains the best-preserved example of a fortified colonial town in South Asia. In 1986, the fortified port town of Galle, 90 acres in extent, with massive rampart walls, 10 bastions with pepper pot sentry points and 648 buildings, all laid out within its walls, was nominated to the World Heritage List.” 

Meanwhile, Secretary General, Sri Lanka National Commission of UNESCO, Prithiviraj Perera said it was a huge cause for concern to have the heritage value being destroyed through commercialisation of premises.

“The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has deemed the Galle Cricket Stadium and the proposed Galle Port Expansion Project to be threats to the preservation of the Galle Fort Heritage Site in Sri Lanka. It is alarming to hear this type of news in such a backdrop and the authorities should take immediate action to stem it,” he said.








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